Gerard Stenzler wanted to play baseball in the worst way.
And that’s about the way he was forced to play the sport as a boy.
Stenzler’s problem was that he was growing up in the Netherlands in the years after World War II. Soccer was king in those days, as it is now. Baseball was a curiosity. There had been a home-grown baseball club in Holland since just after the turn of the century, but to most Dutch people it was that strange recreational activity played by U. S. troops.
Stenzler and his friends, however, would go to any lengths to play. For example, lacking equipment, they:
deflated soccer balls, pounded them into a half oval and used them as crude mitts.
took paper, soaked it in salt water, rolled it into a ball and wrapped wool around it to make baseballs.
collected sticks to use as bats.
Stenzler laughed about it all the other day at Master’s College in Newhall while making out the lineup for de Spartaan, the club baseball team he has brought to Southern California for a four-game tour, including stops at Biola College, Cal State Los Angeles and Cal State Dominguez Hills. Watching Stenzler, the team’s manager, standing in his double-knits in the third base coaching box, flashing signals to hitters swinging aluminum bats, his past seemed like the Dark Ages.
“We had nothing after the war,” he said. “To get a baseball, a real baseball, cost $50 in American money.”
Baseball today is still no threat to soccer in the Netherlands, but it is far more than a curiosity. There are amateur leagues for all ages and the Dutch national team is the reigning European champion. There is an annual international tournament, known as Baseball Week, held in the Dutch city of Haarlem. The Netherlands even sent a team to the 1988 Olympics--it did not fare well, winning but two of nine games.
To those unfamiliar with the structure of baseball in Holland, it can get rather confusing. But here goes.
De Spartaan is part of a club that contains 400 people aged 6 to adult. The youngest play in something called peanut ball, the equivalent of tee-ball in the United States. Next comes Little League and so on up to the adults.
The de Spartaan team currently on tour is in the top division of the four that constitute baseball on a national level in Holland.
The atmosphere at that level isn’t quite what one would find in the major leagues, or even the minors, in this country. It’s more like collegiate ball. Nobody gets paid. Everybody has a full-time job. Games are played on weekends, with attendance numbering anywhere between 500 and 2,000 fans. Most playing fields don’t even have stands, just bleachers.
In comparison, a soccer game in the same Dutch town might draw 10,000.
But that may be changing slightly.
“Because of the violence associated with soccer,” de Spartaan official John Vandenberg said, “families are looking for a substitute and are turning to baseball.”
Dutch baseball teams are limited to two foreigners, usually Americans. Chris Harrison, assistant baseball coach at The Master’s and sports information director at the school, has been one of those Americans.
“I spent five months over there and it was great,” Harrison said. “You stay in private homes and you become part of the family. They want to take you on vacation and treat you like a family member. It was a wonderful experience.”
According to Harrison, the Dutch national team might compare with an NCAA Division I school in the United States. De Spartaan didn’t compare too favorably with The Master’s on Tuesday, losing 15-2.
But Stenzler wasn’t too upset. It was a great learning experience. And besides, who can complain about a game where the mitts and balls come ready-made, no wool or deflated soccer balls required?